From the Archives I: Extremism in the Defense of Bible Prophecy Is No Vice

Editor’s Note: I am happy to say that my book about the history of evangelical higher education has entered its final production stages. We are on track to release Fundamentalist U by January 1, 2018. The sad fact, though, is that so much great archival material got cut from the final draft. In this series, I’ll be sharing some of these too-good-too-lose gems from my work in the archives.

You may have heard it before. There is a myth circulating in nerd circles about the history of fundamentalism in the twentieth century. It’s not true and historians have punctured it convincingly. If we needed any more proof, the archives are full of evidence.

As the old story goes, fundamentalists were humiliated at the Scopes trial in 1925. They retreated in anger and disgust from participation in mainstream life, building up a network of inward-looking institutions such as colleges, church networks, and parachurch organizations. Then—depending on which version you hear—either Billy Graham in 1957 or Jerry Falwell in 1976 broke out of this self-imposed fundamentalist ghetto to leap back onto America’s center stage.

It’s hooey, as historians such as Matthew Sutton and Daniel K. Williams have shown. As Professor Sutton put it in American Apocalypse, the “rise-fall-rebirth” story just doesn’t match the historical record. Fundamentalists never retreated from political involvement or mainstream cultural engagement. In Sutton’s words, fundamentalists’

agenda was always about more than correct theology; it was also about reclaiming and then occupying American culture.

I’m making this argument in my book as well. Even at schools such as the Moody Bible Institute that were supposedly the most otherworldly, the most focused on Bible prophecy and the farthest removed from the nitty-gritty politics of the so-called “New Christian Right,” fundamentalists never withdrew from politics, never retreated from mainstream involvement. As this photo makes clear, in the 1960s MBI ardently engaged in partisan politics, pushing hard for a conservative Goldwater presidency.1964 WMBI and Goldwater

It wasn’t only in the 1960s, either. MBI’s leaders always fought in the political arena. Back in the 1920s, for example, President James M. Gray worried that MBI’s radio station had come under undue political pressure. What did Gray do? “The time for fighting has begun,” he warned. He used every weapon in reach to oppose the new radio regulations, including the Capitol-Hill influence of Missouri Senator James M. Reed.

Gray’s political activism was not the exception, it was the rule. No matter where you look in the archives, you see fundamentalists and neo-evangelicals fully engaged in mainstream politics. There was no retreat. There was no withdrawal. And, of course, that means Jerry Falwell’s 1970s leap into politics was not as ground-shaking as Falwell liked to say it was.

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Booze and Bibles

Have a cocktail with your Leviticus?

That’s the new option for faculty and hangers-on at Chicago’s storied Moody Bible Institute.

Image Source: Renew Chicago

Image Source: Renew Chicago

It represents only the newest iteration of an age-old story for conservative evangelical institutions: How much to embrace and how much to eschew contemporary cultural norms.

According to a story in Religion News Service, the downtown Bible institute will now allow faculty and staff to drink.  This is new.

The question asked by Sarah Pulliam Bailey is whether this represents a trend among leading evangelical institutions.  As Bailey points out, evangelical organizations such as Focus on the Family and Wheaton College have made similar changes to their lifestyle policies.

Bailey might also have mentioned recent changes at the more conservative Liberty University.

Such questions of cultural relevance and theological fidelity are nothing new at Moody Bible Institute.  As I argued in my 1920s book, President James M. Gray wondered at that time whether the new fundamentalist movement was a boon or a threat to the MBI’s evangelical mission.

In the end, President Gray and the 1920s MBI generation took a skittery position on fundamentalism.  Insofar as fundamentalism supported a firm insistence on the inerrancy and primacy of Scripture, it was all to the good.  But if the new fundamentalist movement took attention away from the primary goals of Bible knowledge and evangelical effectiveness, it was a threat.

Nor is the weightiness of the MBI’s internal debates about this issue unique among conservative educational institutions.  Many evangelical schools have a long history of struggle with questions of change and cultural consonance.  At Wheaton College, for example, President Charles Blanchard fretted throughout the 1920s about the meanings of modernism.  At that time, “modernism” among evangelical Protestants referred, first and foremost, to a theological movement.  Modernists in the 1920s hoped to bring church doctrine more in line with changing cultural norms.  Fundamentalists and their conservative allies, on the other hand, insisted on keeping true to traditional theological norms.

Blanchard, as did other evangelical educational leaders in the 1920s and since, experienced a good deal of anguish as he worked to guide his school through this cultural Scylla and Charybdis.  On the one hand, Blanchard, like Gray, did not want to truckle to fads.  On the other hand, neither leader wanted to insist on tradition merely for the sake of fuddy-duddy-ness.

The recent decision to allow drinking among MBI faculty represents a similar wrangling with contemporary cultural issues.  How much does a trenchant cultural Amishness contribute to true Biblical understanding?  And how much does it distract from MBI’s central goals of Biblical missiology?

 

The Bible in America: Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth, Part II: Dispensational Premillennialism

“Daniel and Revelation Compared,” by Clarence Larkin, c. 1919

For most kinds of conservative Protestants, it is difficult to overestimate the importance of the Bible in theology and culture.  After all, at the heart of the Protestant Reformation was a call to return Christianity to reliance on Scripture, Faith, and Grace.  For outsiders trying to understand this segment of Fundamentalist America, a good starting point is an attempt to wrap our heads around a Biblical worldview.

As historian Timothy Weber argued in the early 1980s, one tradition of conservative evangelical Protestantism has long confronted a decisive Biblical dilemma.  In the early twentieth century, this self-identified “fundamentalist” group wrestled with this stubborn paradox: the Bible must be assumed to be clear and comprehensible to all readers, yet readers must be guarded against naïve misinterpretation.  In the end, Weber argued, the first generation of fundamentalist Bible teachers “fought hard to keep the Bible accessible to ordinary believers but in the end made them nearly totally dependent on themselves” (117).

Let me be as clear as possible: in these discussions we are not talking about the wider cultural traditionalist “Fundamentalist America” that usually fills these pages.  Instead, we’re focusing now on a small but influential subset of conservative evangelical Protestants, those few who fit the definition of small-f Protestant fundamentalism.

In the early twentieth century, this group rallied around a particular sort of Biblical interpretation.  Though not without dissent and voluble disagreement, a theology of dispensational premillennialism became for many conservative evangelical Protestants the only proper interpretation of the Bible’s message.

This post will attempt to introduce outsiders to this theology.  As with every topic in the kaleidoscopic world of Fundamentalist America, this introduction will include some broad-brush oversimplifications.  Especially important to remember is that this theology, like every theology or ideology, is constantly changing and subject to intense criticism and disagreement.  Outsiders should never allow themselves to relax into a false sense of self-satisfaction when it comes to understanding such notions.  We at ILYBYGTH write with full consciousness of our inadequate theological background and apologize for our stuttering and awkward presentation of these ideas.  However, with the broad-brush caveat in mind, we can lay out a few basic facts about dispensational premillennialism.

The theology came to the United States in the late 1800s, introduced by theologian John Nelson Darby.  Darby found that he could not convert many American evangelicals to his Plymouth Brethren sect, but his theology became surprisingly influential.

Christians have been arguing about both dispensations and the millennium for thousands of years.  Saint Augustine, for example, noted in his Confessions (Book III, Chapter 7) that naïve Christians complained of inconsistency with Old Testament rules.  “The people of whom I am speaking,” Augustine wrote, “have the same sort of grievance when they hear that things which good men could do without sin in days gone by are not permitted in ours, and that God gave them one commandment and has given us another.”

The answer, for Augustine as for Darby and subsequent generations of Christians, is that sacred history has been divided into discrete dispensations.  For American Protestant fundamentalists, this understanding of the Bible has been taught assiduously for generations.  In the first generation, Bible and prophecy scholars such as James M. Gray of the Moody Bible Institute, A.T. PiersonI.M. Haldeman, and Arno Gaebelein taught readers how to understand the divisions in sacred history.

But no other single work was more influential in teaching the fundamentalists’ new interpretation of Scripture than Cyrus I. Scofield’s annotated study Bible.  This commentary on the King James Version first appeared in 1909 and remains in print.  These days, it is also readily available online.  Scofield’s commentary led many readers to assume a dispensational premillennial reading was part of Holy Writ itself.  To give just one example, in a note to Exodus 19:8 (“And all the people answered together, and said, All that the LORD hath spoken we will do”), Scofield added this dispensational interpretation:

“The Fifth Dispensation: Law.  This dispensation extends from Sinai to Calvary—from the Exodus to the Cross.  The history of Israel in the wilderness and in the land is one long record of the violation of the law.  The testing of the nation by law ending in the judgment of the Captivities, but the dispensation itself ended at the Cross. . . . See, for the other six dispensations: Innocence (Gen. 1:28); Conscience (Gen. 3:23); Human Government (Gen. 8:20); Promise (Gen. 12:1); Grace (John 1:17); Kingdom (Eph. 1:10).”

Another prominent dispensational interpreter and popularizer was Clarence Larkin of Philadelphia.  Larkin’s dispensational charts laid out this theology for students of dispensational premillennialism.

The second half of this term, “premillennialism,” also has a long and storied history among Christians.  Christians traditionally fell into several interpretations of the second coming of the Christ.  Premillennialism, the notion that Christ will return to save a fallen world and usher in a thousand years of earthly peace and justice, remained popular for generations in the early church.  By the third century AD, however, mainstream Christianity welcomed a variety of interpretations of the millennium.  Postmillennialism became influential in American Protestantism throughout the nineteenth century.  In this reading, Christ would return at the end of a thousand years of earthly peace.

Darby’s theology introduced a new wrinkle into these traditional disputes.  Based on his interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 4:14-18,* Darby argued for a secret rapture of all true believers at the start of the end-times.  For many conservative evangelicals, this notion of a secret rapture has become the standard interpretation of the last days.  And, again, it is vital to remember that these ideas are the subject of intense dispute.  Schools of futurists, historicists, amillennialists, and many others insist on their own vision of the apocalypse.

Bumper Sticker Culture War-ning

For those of us trying to understand Fundamentalist America, simply understanding the basic outlines of dispensational premillennial theology will help.  Believers in this vision of Bible truth will see history and politics as primarily an unfolding of Bible prophecy.  The future, in this theology, is written and clear to all those who rightly divide the word of truth.  As historian Dwight Wilson argued in the 1970s, premillennial belief has had a decisive influence on American foreign policy for generations.  Candidates for the important role of the Antichrist have included Franklin D. Roosevelt, Mussolini, Hitler, and a succession of Roman Catholic Popes.  Central in every interpretation, however, is the decisive role of the state of Israel and the world’s Jews.

Those who view world politics and history through this lens will likely be difficult for outsiders to understand.  They will certainly be less likely to agree to pragmatic solutions or a two-state solution to the Palestinian/Israeli dispute, for instance, since they believe they have read the ending of this story in advance.

For such Bible believers, political activism is not intended to procure half a loaf.  Rather, the goal is to line up on the right side and to watch as prophecy unfolds.  Thus, returning Jews to Israel is an important part of divinely dictated history, but returning Palestinians to that same land is not.  Signing on to the program of a charismatic UN leader might mean condemning innocent souls to hell, not merely wasting aid dollars.  In sum, though it is important not to fall for scare stories about the power of Bible prophecy in determining US foreign policy, it is also important to understand the theological roots of some of fundamentalism’s most distinctive ideas.

*          “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him.  For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep.  For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.  Wherefore comfort one another with these words.”

Further Reading: Timothy P. Weber, “The Two-Edged Sword: The Fundamentalist Use of the Bible,” 101-120, in Nathan O. Hatch and Mark A. Noll, eds., The Bible in America: Essays in Cultural History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982); see also Weber’s Living in the Shadow of the Second Coming: American Premillennialism, 1875-1982 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987) and Ernest R. Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism, 1800-1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970); Dwight Wilson, Armageddon Now! The Premillenarian Response to Russia and Israel since 1917 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975).

Anti-Evolution II: The Argument against Closedmindedness

ANTI EVOLUTION II: CLOSEDMINDEDNESS

One of the most convincing intellectual weapons in the arsenal of evolution supporters is that evolution has won over scientific opinion.  This is the argument that convinces me, for instance.  I admit that I don’t really understand the deeper science behind evolution, but when I see that every mainstream scientist endorses the idea, I am willing to be convinced.  But if we step outside that consensus, it is easy to see that such a consensus can actually be an argument against the simple truth of evolution.  And for the purposes of this blog, remember that I am not trying to convince or convert committed evolutionists to the opposite point of view.  All I hope to do is to show that there are respectable reasons why people might hold that opposite point of view.  I would like each side only to acknowledge that those on the other side might not be wicked, ignorant, or crazy.  In the case of the scientific consensus about evolution, it is easy enough to see how such a consensus can be proof of the
untruth of evolution, as much as it can be proof of its truth.  Here’s what I mean:

For most regular people, science is still understood to be a matter of deducing the objective truth about the nature of life and humanity.  Something is more scientific, in this view, when it comes closer to that objective truth, and less scientific as it edges away.  Thus, if evolution is
science, then those who oppose evolution must oppose science.

But scientists and those interested in the nature of science offer a much more complex view, especially since works like Thomas Kuhn’s
influential 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  Since that time, the nature of scientific truth has been understood to be more of a social construction.  To create scientific truth, scientists engage in a social process that constructs an orthodoxy.  The word Kuhn used has made it into everyday usage: scientists construct a paradigm that guides their explanations.  Those who fall outside that paradigm must be forbidden from calling their work “real” science.  However, due to the nature of this process, the next scientific revolution can only come from those at the
outer boundaries of the current dominant paradigm.  Only by challenging the existing paradigm can scientific revolutions take place.

To clarify this process, consider an example that Kuhn himself used.  In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, European scientists agreed that combustibility resulted from an ineffable substance they called phlogiston.  When something burned, it was the phlogiston in that material being released.  This concept guided their research.  They argued about phlogiston’s nature; they disagreed about the implications of experiments in which different elements were burned in the air or under glass lids; they created a scientific consensus about the nature, meaning, and  implications of phlogiston.

By the end of the eighteenth century, a scientific revolution had rejected the idea of phlogiston.  Until that time, however, any notion that contradicted the dominant scientific paradigm would have been rejected.  Why did some materials gain weight, for example, when they rusted and supposedly emitted phlogiston?  During the reign of the scientific consensus about phlogiston, such disconfirming evidence was explained within the paradigm of phlogiston.  Scientists wondered if phlogiston might have negative weight, for example.  But they generally did not consider the idea that phlogiston itself was utterly imaginary.

The implications of this understanding of scientific truth are obvious.  In the case of evolution, the fact that mainstream scientists all agree on evolution does not prove the merit of evolution.  Rather, it only proves that such evolutionary scientists are trapped by the intellectual
constrictions of that dominant paradigm.  They do not need to be wicked, ignorant, or insane to do so.  In fact, most of them would love to come up with a powerful new idea that would revolutionize scientific knowledge.  Most of them would drool at the thought of having their name ranked up there with the other scientific revolutionaries, Lavoisier, Newton, Darwin, Einstein.  It is not that they are trying to enforce an orthodoxy.  Rather, they are fundamentally unable to think beyond the restrictions of their current paradigm.  They cannot think of ideas, in other words,
that build on ideas they do not think.  It will not be until a scientific revolution overhauls current understandings that scientists will be able to see the flaws in their evolutionary thinking.

Perhaps the example of phlogiston is too far removed from current thinking, however.  It might be easy to acknowledge that scientists back in the seventeenth century would fall prey to such unscientific notions, but to take solace in the idea that more recent science would not do so.  An
example from the twentieth century, then, might be more convincing.  For a few decades at the beginning of the twentieth century, one dominant idea was that of scientific racism.  Experts explored the differences between different types of humanity.  Races were graded on a scale from robust, vigorous, intelligent Anglo-Saxons at the top, to indolent, brutish Sub-Saharan Africans at the bottom.  The qualities of each race were
scientifically delineated.  Readers were told that such notions had been agreed upon by a consensus of leading scientists.  To doubt it would be to
express ignorance and reactionary stubbornness.  The policy implications of this kind of science were obvious.  If there were greater and
lesser races of humanity, it made sense to avoid cheapening the better races with the traits of the lesser.  Breeding between different races would lead to a deadly downward spiral of stupidity and weakness.  It made sense to promote racial eugenics, the discouragement of breeding of less advanced races and the utter prohibition of breeding between races.  The people who promoted these ideas were not cranks or outsiders.  They included scholars such as Madison Grant, who testified as an expert before US Congress as they debated passing newer, stricter immigration laws in 1924.

Before such ideas were kicked out of mainstream science by scholars such as Franz Boas, they dominated thinking about the nature of man
and society.  It took people with a previous commitment to an alternative understanding of humanity to challenge that view.  Among those challengers were evangelical Protestants.  James M. Gray, for example, in his career as president of the Moody Bible Institute of Chicago
(1904-1934), challenged the notion of scientific racism, just as he challenged the notion of human evolution.  For Gray, both ideas conflicted with the truth of Biblical teachings.  The Bible, Gray believed, described a common origin for all of humanity in the Garden of Eden.  Thus notions that some races were higher or lower contradicted God’s teaching.  The fact that scientists with impeccable credentials scoffed at Gray’s supposed
intellectual naiveté didn’t deter him.  He was able to think outside the dominant paradigm because he was committed to his understanding of an inerrant Bible.  Indeed, he was forced to think that way.  He could not have accepted the ideas of scientific racism, just as he could not accept the idea of evolution.

It is easy enough for some to reject the logic of Bible-based anti-evolutionists, but such rejectionists should be humbler in their assertions of confidence in the scientific consensus.  Such consensuses have in the past bound mainstream scholars to reprehensible ideas such scientific racism, or incorrect ideas such as phlogiston.  Simply because there is a consensus doesn’t make something true.

Those who support evolution often make another criticism of their opponents.  They point out that creationists’ claims violate the most fundamental principles of modern science by requiring a supernatural cause.  Such arguments, evolution supporters insist, go against the nature of true science, in which supernatural causes are rejected in favor of digging out the true material causes of things.  Science, at its heart, must reject such explanations, or else risk falling into a muddle in which every event can be explained away as the result of divine activity.  Take a simple example.  Thunder can be explained as the noise made when angels are bowling.  Such an idea is comforting to young children frightened by the noise of a storm.  But if adults were to seriously contend that thunder might in fact be caused that way, it would require fundamental violence to the notion of science.  Scientists know that thunder is really caused by the rapid movement of air to fill the void left by electrical discharges of lightning.  What if the Bible declared that thunder were caused by angels bowling?  Then anti-thunderists might declare that scientists arrogantly assumed that every roll of thunder was caused that way, when in fact some of the thunder might be due to angels bowling.  There is no proof, they could say, that angels did not bowl some of the thunderbursts.  No scientist could ever prove the cause of every single thunderburst.

But those who oppose the idea of evolution are not talking about thunder.  Their case is much stronger.  Thunder is observable.  Thunder can be studied as it happens.  In the case of the origins of life, evolutionists will admit that they have no direct proof of what occurred.  They infer from a body of evidence what they think makes sense, but in doing so they privilege an enormous package of pre-existing ideas about the notion of causation.  In other words, when they look at evidence from fossils and embryos, such evidence confirms their evolutionary hypothesis.  But in order for it to do so, evolutionary scientists must assume that there is only a material cause.

So, for example, evolutionists note that the basic structure of human hands is very similar to the bone structure of a bat’s wing, or a whale’s flipper.  From that they conclude that each of these mammals must have evolved from a common ancestor.  Makes sense.  But that conclusion has already assumed a material, evolutionary cause.  Consider, for instance, what can happen when you open your mind to consider a divine cause.  The conclusion of divine creation makes just as much sense.  Take a look underneath the hood at the engines of a Ford, a Toyota, and a Hyundai.  You will see very similar structures.  Each of them uses very similar mechanisms for generating power and translating that power into movement.  Each of them also has some similar additional parts, such as a reservoir for windshield-washer fluid.  Does that mean that they were not designed?  Of course not.  It means that the designers worked with structures that worked well.  If we assume a designer for life on earth, then we might conclude that the designer found that the same basic structure worked well for whales, bats, and humans.  The point is that evolutionists put the cart before the horse.  They assume a material, evolutionary cause for life, then when they look at evidence, they find their assumption confirmed.  At the very least, if we assume a divine, intentional cause for life, we can find our assumptions similarly confirmed.

ANTI EVOLUTION II: FURTHER READING

Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996); Jerry Bergman, The Criterion: Religious Discrimination in America (Richfield, MN: Onesimus Press, 1984); Madison Grant, The Passing of the Great Race (New York: Scribner’s, 1916).